Eri Yamamoto and Yamawaki

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald navigates the world in a wheelchair. No matter how fast this para-athlete swims, or how many goals she scores as an ice sledge hockey competitor, or how many kilograms she pushes into the air as a competitive powerlifter, when people see her, they see someone who needs help.

At an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event on June 2, 2017, Yamamoto-MacDonald of The Nippon Foundation told a fairly typical story, for her, of going to a store to buy rice. When she got to the cashier to pay for a 5kg bag of rice, the person working there took notice of her wheelchair and asked her, “are you able to carry that bag of rice?” She understood the person was not acting mean, but she was frustrated that as a power weightlifter, who lifts 50 kilograms in competition, is seen as so helpless that she can’t lift 5. “They are not seeing me as an athlete. They are seeing me as a disabled person.”

For joint speakers, Yamamoto-MacDonald, as well as Yasushi Yamawaki, also of the Nippon Foundation and president of the Japan Paralympic Committee, it is their mission to change the perceptions of people regarding individuals with impairments. “It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” said Yamawaki. “We take the word ‘impossible’, and add an apostrophe between the ‘I’ and the ‘m’, because we like to say ‘I’m possible’. To us, nothing is impossible.”

Yamamoto-MacDonald, who has not had the use of her legs since birth, has been working in the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center with a goal of bringing social change to Japan. It’s important to change the tangibles, she said, designing infrastructure and venues to make it easier for people with impairments to navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. But it’s more important to deal with the intangibles. “Changing peoples’ minds is more important. Having them watch high performance para-athletes can change people’s perceptions towards people with disabilities.”

Nippon Foundation produces an Education Toolkit, called “I’m Possible”, which they distribute to schools throughout the country. So far they have handed out 23,000 toolkits nationwide. Nippon Foundation has organized visits by para-athletes to over 100 elementary, junior high and high schools last year. The plan is to visit 250 schools in 2017 and 1,000 by 2020.

The education is important because it is often the social environment that highlights the disability of an individual, as Yamamoto-MacDonald explained. If the work environment of a person with an impairment allows that person to move about and do the things he or she wants or needs to do, the so-called disability can be rendered unnoticeable. But if the physical environment caters to so-called able-bodied people only, and the surrounding individuals consciously or unconsciously behave or speak in a way that ignores or demeans those with impairments, then as Yamamoto-MacDonald observed, the social environment creates the disability.

She explained that at her workplace in the Nippon Foundation, everyone works to chip away at both the tangible and intangible barriers people with impairments face. However, while her workplace allows her to live a relatively normal life, she finds Japanese society less accommodating. “Japanese people are very polite. But in public, they are not. If I’m traveling by train, I need to use the elevators. But people who have the option of stairs and escalators push their way in front of me to get into the elevators.” She said that in contrast, while London still needed to make improvements to infrastructure, they had a better mindset, even back in 2012.

Yamamoto MacDonald and Roy

At the London Paralympics, I worked at the Japan House to build awareness for the Tokyo 2020 bid. To get to the venue I had to take public transpiration. I got off at a station where there were no elevators. The officers told me that I had to get off at the station before this one. But they made sure I got to the venue. The people’s mindset is very important, even without all of the infrastructure. I got to where I needed to go in London. Tokyo doesn’t have that mindset. People need to care a little more. It would be better to have more accessibility, but it is accessibility in the heart that is more important.

Yamamoto-MacDonald talked about how important it is for companies to expose themselves more to people with impairments, and to understand that engaging with a wider variety of people is an opportunity. In fact, she said that CSR, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility, should really be re-labeled CSO, or Corporate Social Opportunity. It’s an opportunity for corporations and wider society to understand the power of diversity and inclusion. But it is also a way to expand opportunities for people like her. This is key for two reasons: to motivate those with impairments who feel different and isolated, as well as to unlock the potential abilities in the disabled.

I never got asked about my hobbies, or what sports I like. When I was 9, I was so shy. I couldn’t say “thank you”. Why is it only me who has to say “thank you” all the time, I thought. I couldn’t say “thank you” back because I felt I couldn’t help anyone. But when I began swimming, I gained confidence. I swam faster, faster than even able-bodied swimmers. That’s when I started saying “thank you”. As I grew more confident, I began to dream of being a Paralympian, going to the Paralympics. Since I began having that dream, it has become my identity.

An injury at 16 made it difficult for Yamamoto-MacDonald to continue her swimming career. She went to Canada and became proficient at ice sledge hockey, but she also understood this kind of hockey was not yet a Paralympics event. When she returned to Japan, she did not have a specialization that could focus her training for 2020, until she stumbled upon powerlifting.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan government sponsored a special event – a power-lifting exhibition. I saw big guys lifting hundreds of kilograms. My boss told me to give it a try. I grabbed 20kg and it was light! It was fun! I saw other women stop at 20kg but I was able to lift 40 kg. Since then I have been powerlifting.

She explained we rarely see powerlifting on television or live. There are very few events and opportunities, and the opportunities for people with impairments to see para-athletes is very low. “You have to meet the right people for the right chance to come around.” And that is something Yamawaki explained is key to driving societal change – the need to create greater exposure of para-athletes to society to show what is possible.

Yamawaki ended the talk with a video from the International Paralympics Committee. As you can see in the video below, there is a strong push to bring sports opportunities to youth with impairments, that motivating them earlier in their lives will lead them to greater choices and fuller lives.

“It’s not about what people can’t do, it’s what they can do,” he said.

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monica-puigs-tears-of-joy
Monica Puig of Puerto Rico wins gold in women’s single tennis.

The 2016 Rio Olympics had some absolutely thrilling moments. Here are a few to bring back the memories:

yoshida-saori-crying
Saori Yoshida with the weight of Japan on her shoulders.

Don't want to jump in the pool

I lived in Bangkok and Singapore for over 13 years, where it is summer year round, and the temperatures are commonly in the low to mid 30’s Celsius (high 80’s Fahrenheit), and sometimes high 30’s Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit). And for every single one of those years, I had a nice big swimming pool within 10 meters of my apartment.

Jumping into the pool was an absolute delight!

But not for high-performance swimmers, athletes who have trained by jumping into water 12 degrees (20 Fahrenheit) colder than their body temperature, since they were kids. The bracing shock apparently never goes away.

“The worst part about being a swimmer? Jumping in the pool.”

“Jumping into the water when It’s 6am in the winter – it is the last thing you want to do.”

“It’s the worst part of any swimmer’s day.”

Click on the above picture or go to this link and see grown men and women revert back into little kids just thinking about it.

From upper left clockwise: Johnny Weissmuller: 5 gold medals in 1924 and 1928; Don Schollander: 4 gold medals in 1964; Dara Torres: 4 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze in 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008; Mark Spitz: 9 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze in 1968 and 1972; Jenny Thompson: 8 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004; Michael Phelps: 18 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze in 2004, 2008 and 2012
From left to right:
Johnny Weissmuller: 5 gold medals in 1924 and 1928; Don Schollander: 4 gold medals in 1964; Dara Torres: 4 gold, 4 silver and 4 bronze in 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008; Mark Spitz: 9 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze in 1968 and 1972; Jenny Thompson: 8 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004; Michael Phelps: 18 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze in 2004, 2008 and 2012

Except for Katie Ledecky, who won five gold medals and set world records, the US swimming team had a relatively weak World Championships. Despite the fact that the Americans were atop the medal standings, they had the lowest totals in an Olympics or Worlds in the past 50 years.

Americans have been dominant in swimming. At every Olympics since 1964, the American swimming team won the medal count, often overwhelmingly. There was one bump in this relatively smooth ride through the past 50 years of international competition, when the East German team had the largest medal haul, led by Kristin Otto, the first female to win 6 gold medals in a single Games.

But according to Michael Phelps in this NBC OlympicTalk blog post, the American swimming team finds itself in unfamiliar territory: “Honestly, I really don’t know what to say about what I’ve seen over there,” said Phelps. “An interesting place

national gymnasium and annex2 Old residences for US military families were knocked down as another physical remnant of the American occupation disappeared. And up rose a structure, often cited as one of the most beautifully designed for an Olympic Games – the National Gymnasium. In 1964, 11,000 spectators would watch swimming and diving events in the National Gymnasium, that, from the outside appears to uncoil and breathe, and from the inside inspires the awe of the great cathedrals of Europe. Danish diver, Soren Svejstrup wrote me about the first time he entered Kenzo Tange’s dream building. “When we arrived the first day at the pool, into this wonderful building, our coach said, ‘This is the place every swimmer and diver want to be buried when the time comes’.”

From the Book
From the Book “The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964”
The first reaction of Dutch swimmer, Ada Kok, who won two swimming silver medals in this building was, “Wow! We looked up, completely flabbergasted. It had an Olympic size pool, and yet, once inside, it felt really cozy, and so typical Japanese with its breathtaking roof.”

Two-time gold medalist, American Donna de Varona said she would kid the Princeton basketball star, Bill Bradley, about the size of the annex, which was the smaller Tange version of the National Gymnasium and where the basketball games were played for a maximum of 4,000 spectators. “That basketball arena was so small and our swimming stadium was big and beautiful, state of the art and breathtaking.” 

This site gives a detailed explanation and illustration of Tange’s genius use

Soren Svejstrup, greeted in Tokyo upon arrival (from the collection of Soren Svejstrup)
Soren Svejstrup, greeted in Tokyo upon arrival (from the collection of Soren Svejstrup)

Diver, Søren Svejstrup of Denmark, was performing well after the first round of the ten-meter dive competition in 1964. In the second round, Svejstrup was in fourth place and closing in on a medal opportunity. But in the end, despite error-free dives, he could not make it to the finals.

Without the pressure of the competition, the next day, Svejstrup took a ride in a car around Tokyo with friends, enjoying life as a tourist for a change. The following day, however, the 19-year old woke up in a world of pain. First the Danish team doctor told him to rest, before being taken to a hospital, where the doctors could not figure out the issue. Finally, Svejstrup was taken to a university hospital where they told the diver that his appendix was rotten, and had to be removed right away.

“At the theatre they gave me an injection in my spine, and a mirror so I could watch the whole operation. The doctor was very nice, and said ‘we will give you the smallest mark on your stomach possible, so you can look nice when you dive from the 10 meter back in Denmark’.”

It was as if his body told him, “I was patient with you. Now you need to listen to me.” As Svejstrup explained to me, “my appendix knew what to do, and what not to do.”

DickRoth_display_imageOn the other hand, swimmer, Dick Roth, simply did not listen to his body.

Roth had had a long day after the opening ceremony at the National Stadium. He went to bed around 9pm but couldn’t fall asleep, feeling pain in his stomach. He threw up several times during the night, and finally at 6am he woke up and was taken to the infirmary.

They probed and tested the 17-year old, and then sent him to a hospital at a US military base a couple of hours away. They told him they had to cut out his appendix. The surgical team was ready to operate. All he had to do was sign a paper allowing the surgery.

Roth said “No”. Several hours later, Roth’s parents were located and brought in. They were ready to sign the form – they did not even want to imagine the possibility of their son’s appendix bursting in the middle of a competition, lifetime opportunity or not.

Roth insisted on delaying the surgery, somehow convinced his parents not to authorize the surgery.

And that was it. Roth went on to set world record in the 400-meter individual medley, and take gold for the US.

don schollander_Life Magazine_30Oct1964

Don Schollander was Mark Spitz before Mark Spitz, winning four swimming gold medals and setting three world records at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. At that time, the 18-year old blonde from Lake Oswego, Oregon was one of the most popular people in Japan. As a staff writer for the Greensboro Daily New put it, “The Japanese have gone wild over him. His mother and father have given to a Japanese orphanage some 80 boxes of gifts Don received from his Japanese fans.”

And yet, when he participated on a popular game show in America called “To Tell the Truth”, several months after the 1964 Games, two of three judges failed to identify the golden boy.

The one person who wasn’t selected by the judges was contestant #1, John Farrow, the sister of actress Mia Farrow.

The top pop songs of 1964 were:

1.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” The Beatles
2.  “She Loves You” The Beatles
3.  “Hello, Dolly!” Louis Armstrong
4.  “Oh, Pretty Woman” Roy Orbison
5.  “I Get Around” The Beach Boys
6.  “Everybody Loves Somebody” Dean Martin
7.  “My Guy” Mary Wells
8.  “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” Gale Garnett
9.  “Last Kiss” J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers
10. “Where Did Our Love Go” The Supremes

No surprises. But according to swimmer Dick Roth, gold medal winner of the Men’s 400 meter individual medley race in Tokyo, the song he remembers from that time is Lonnie Donegan’s  “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose it’s Flavour?”